How to fix Canada! An Outsider's Guide
Part 2 in the How to fix…. Series. An opinionated Australian gives constructive advice on how to politically reform your countries one at a time!
Like previous article on the reform of the system of the United States I have taken the liberty of making a hypothetical list of ideal reform for a country which traditions and culture much closer to that of my own Australia. I have always had a fond appreciation for Canada and a fascination with its politics (a proper Parliament filled with North Americans, who would have thought!). I have friends from there who are members of the New Democratic Party and running for the new Youth Parliament. We often discuss how Canada requires many changes. This is to hopefully inspire them or any Canadian at one possibility to better their nation.
The Federal Parliament
In Canada many reformers wish to use Proportional Representation to replace the current first past the post method of electing MPs to their ridings. While I agree FPTP needs to go, PP is not the answer. The problem in Westminster parliaments is that the lower house is where the Government is formed. Though proportional representation is more accurate a reflection of the population, it would lead to more fractious and unstable governments as they would be more often forced to form coalitions to maintain a working majority. Such instability is unhealthy and was part of the problem which Weimar Republic in Germany faced which caused the rise of the Third Reich. Even now Germany has to form an uneasy Grand Coalition Government between the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats in order to prevent chaos.
I propose the House of Commons be a compromise, remaining true to its traditions and stability but democratizing elections further so that no MP is elected without a 50 mandate at least. The Australian House of Representatives has such a system: Preferential Voting, or Instant Runoff Voting as its known elsewhere. Look into it.
Now that the House of Commons is fixed, it's time to find a more practical application for Proportional Representation, the Triple-E Senate. The Senate is a bizarre appointed imitation of the British House of Lords that hasn't been reformed and most strangely exists in a system without a culture of hereditary peerage. Some Canadians support removing the Senate altogether in the same way Provincial Legislative Councils have been disposed of. I warn against this. If Canada were like a province or a unitary state like the United Kingdom this would be valid, but it isn't. Canada is a confederation and an upper house is essential for its federal structure. Australia modeled our bicameral Parliament off the United States philosophy of a People's house and States' house. Designed to give all States equal representation so that in a population based House of Representatives the state of New South Wales could not completely dominate the sparsely populated state of Tasmania. Australia's 76 member Senate is composed of 12 Senators for each state and 2 Senators for each Territory. While our lower house is elected with the IRV system, we democratically elect the Senators for our state using Proportional Representation.
Canada needs a 'Province's house'. The rights of provinces seems more important to Canada than state's rights has become in Australia. The Western provinces have felt neglected and dominated by Ontario and feel a lack of representation in the Parliament. They, like Quebec have pondered secession from the Confederation. With a reformed Commons and Senate that is modeled on the PR elected Australian Senate which unlike the Canadian Senate, has slowly evolved to meet our similar needs.
Besides its role as Province's house, like its role in Australia, Canada must have a house of review. To become a Government, a party must control the numbers in the lower house. For anyone other than the major parties or the Governing Party to have a say and shape the outcome is virtually impossible. A proportionally elected Senate can review legislation, and thanks to its wider demographic there can be real accountability and not just a rubber stamp for the Government controlled Commons. After the 2004 federal election in Australia the Government for the first time in 20 years gained control of the Senate. This is unusual. The new Labor Government which won the House of Reps in the 2007 election does not have a majority in the Senate. Neither does the Liberal/National Coalition. The Senate's balance of power rests of five Greens, one Family First and one Independent Senator. The Senate is back to normal.
This will be one of the most contentious idea, but compulsory voting. Since the 1920s all Australian citizens are obligated by law to enroll and vote in all federal and state elections. Failure to take five minutes from your day and exercise your democratic duty will cost you a small fine if there is not a valid reason. I don't see what people aversion to compulsory is voting is, especially in Canada where democracy is such a cherished institution which without will continue to slump into apathy. I hear the same reasoning that people should not be forced to vote if they don't want to. People without opinions shouldn't have to vote. I disagree passionately. Voting should not be a right; it should be regarded as a responsibility. It should be a duty to our society as much as it is to obey the law and to pay our taxes.
Which brings me to the point, how can people complain about having to spend a few moments to vote, yet there is no rigorous opposition to citizens not having to obey the law or refusing to pay our taxes. By law you ARE obliged to do these things, it's not going to change. So how can people who have to do that vigorously oppose making sure we have to have a say into who makes those laws and to who and where our taxes are going. Oh but they say, I'm not interested in politics or I don't have an opinion so I don't vote and shouldn't have to. Well that's preposterous, if we disregard the points I've already made, allow me to highlight something called Jury Duty. Ordinary people chosen at random, no matter how apathetic are obligated by law to be apart of a jury, to make judgments and vote, yes voting, to decide sometimes life and death matters. Now if it's good enough to enforce in our Judiciary why not the legislature and executives?
Now people who are not used to the system will harp on for ages about the tyranny of being forced to have their say in the process but in Australia like many places we've done it for over 80 years. We consistently have election turnouts well over 90 and people don't have objections. Its a few minutes once every couple of years to walk down to the local school, church or public building to decide how the future will effect you. Compare that to the US or UK. The Labour Party dreads an election day where it rains because rain or shine conservatives will vote and others will resort to laziness. There's a great episode of The West Wing where they show this. Parties divert more energy and funds into car polling and begging citizens to actually turn up to vote than having a proper campaign and focusing on issues. We don't have these problems. A simple reform could make Canada a better place. At the end of the day after all these points, the simple fact about compulsory voting is it is the only way to have a legitimate democratic government because the result is the true reflection of the nation.
I am a member of the Australian Labor Party so it's fairly obvious I favour the more progressive parties in Canada. I have a great admiration of the New Democrats and I'd like to see them get their act together and become a Federal Government one day. If Trudeau were still around I'd be rooting for the Liberals. The simple point is this, Compulsory voting will ensure there will never be a Tory Government again. Rain, hail or shine who is it consistently turns up to vote? Conservative people consistently turn on mass. Imagine if you mobolised the whole population, all those minorities who have the poorest turnout rate, lazy progressives who need some legal incentive.
I recommend the adoption of 'One Vote, One Value'. In some provinces there is a disparity between the population sizes of some of Ridings, causing in effect an unequal representation in the Commons. Australia has adopted the system where each Electoral Division has the same population and a maximum tolerance of ten percent difference either way. Each of our member's of Parliament represent an equal constituency. Some members have an electorate that runs a few suburbs; others have ones that are larger than some States.
Finally, the Canadian Republic. I am strong supporter of reforming Australia from a Constitutional Monarchy to a Republic. As Youth Leader of the Opposition in the Queensland Youth Parliament I made a speech on the subject to hopefully restart the national debate. In a nutshell to quote the Australian Republican Movement, the issue is for: "A Mate for Head of State." For Canada, it can be: "A Resident for President." Please take a look at your own Republican Movement, "Citizens for a Canadian Republic" for more info.
Australia and Canada, as well as a few other nations are Commonwealth Realms. We have the Queen as our Head of State. Be mindful the subtle difference of a Commonwealth Realm and being a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Over three quarters of Commonwealth members are republics yet still are equal and contributing members to the organisation. I am advocating becoming Commonwealth Republics rather than Realms. So how is it at the dawn of the 21st century our countries have not stood up on our own two feet and are able to compliment our democratic society with a Head of State that is one of us and not the hereditary monarch of a foreign country?
I have spoken to some Canadians on the issue and I have found they generally have a lack of understanding about the issue. This is because the level of debate on the subject has not yet progressed that far. Australia has already had a referendum in 1999 on the subject but it failed. I'll explain why later. First I think some of the arguments need to be understood so that Canadians can forward their own debate.
In no way do I disrespect the Queen or the role she and her predecessors have played in our development but I think the words of former Prime Minister Paul Keating sum it up: "It is not because our affections for Great Britain are reduced, or the friendship between us frailer that we are considering the option of becoming a Republic. It is not because the machinery is broken, it's because a great many Australians, in all likelihood, a majority of Australians believe the machinery is no longer the most appropriate."
When Her Majesty is abroad, though she is our collective Head of State, she is not referred as the Queen of Canada or the Queen of Australia, but as the Queen of the United Kingdom. This is belittling and unsatisfactory for our nations. We need Heads of State who can work primarily in the interests and be a cultural representative and figurehead to OUR countries.
The Governor-General is not the Head of State, but merely their representative. They do not have the same impact. Also there exists a problem in our countries regarding the Reserve Powers the Governor-General's possess. The Mackenzie-Bying Affair in 1926 for a while was the sole precedent to cause concern in Commonwealth countries as to the powers of the crown representatives. Australia had more examples to provide. Twice in Australian history has vice regal powers been used. The first was the
New South Wales Governor's dismissed Premier Jack Lang and his Labor Government in 1932. Second was the most famous and controversial, the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's Labor Government on the 11th November 1975.
The Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr conspired with Liberal Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser to bring the Whitlam Government down. In short, the Liberals by breaking conventions managed to secure an artificial majority in the Senate and were able to block the federal Budget. Fraser used the blocking to try to extort Whitlam into calling a new general election. Whitlam refused to give in to these tactics and decided to go without the Budget. Whitlam's own appointment as Governor-General, Kerr knowing Whitlam was going to break the deadlock by calling a Half Senate election instead formally dismissed him as Prime Minister when he came to present his advice. Fraser arrived earlier than Whitlam and was shoved into another room so that Whitlam didn't suspect. After that Fraser was appointed caretaker Prime Minister.
In Parliament the House of Representatives voted no confidence in Fraser's Government and for Kerr to reappoint Whitlam because he had the parliamentary majority. The Speaker requested an audience with the G-G in order to convey the will of the Parliament, but strangely Kerr refused to see him. Later on that afternoon the G-G's private secretary read out a proclamation for the dissolution of Parliament to an angry crowd. He finished his speech with a load "God save the Queen!" That is where Whitlam shortly after emerged to make his most famous speech: "Well may we say 'God save the Queen' because nothing will save the Governor-General! The proclamation you have just heard read by the Governor-General's official secretary was counter-signed Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr's Cur!"
The monarchy was politically manipulated, through conspiracy the Governor-General, the representative of a foreign monarch overthrow a twice democratically elected federal Government, while it maintained full confidence in the House of Representatives. What makes it more outrageous is that the Governor-General did not and was under no obligation to consult the Queen prior to this. She herself was a surprised as Whitlam. After those events he and the Australian Labor Party became committed to the Republic. Now nothing as dramatic and controversial in the past century has happened to Canada, but bare no illusions, you have the same system and the same possibility for it to happen. No one in 1975 could have foreseen the events that nearly tore the country apart. In both countries there exists and there is precedent for a person representing a foreign sovereign to be able to topple our democratic governments. And those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
But what sort of the Republic? The Australian Republican Movement has gone as far as creating six hypothetical republican models. They vary on a spectrum between minimalist republics all the way to the American styled ones. I personally do not support an elected presidency or the adoption of an American system. I support the Bipartisan Appointment model which was the version put forward at the Referendum.
This model retains our Westminster parliamentary traditions but removes the Queen and Governor General with an Australian/Canadian President. A list of eminent and nominated citizens are chosen by the Prime Minister, who then discusses with the Leader of the Opposition to make sure the majority feel it is appropriate and that it isn't politically driven motive. Then a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament come together and a two-third majority is needed to elect the President. The President has a similar role as the Governor-General with a term of 5 years. The Prime Minister may remove the President from office, but his action must be then be validated with a majority in the lower house.
I believe a minimalist bipartisan appointed Head of State is needed. It provides the same role as the Monarchy had though it is primarily our own. A Canadian President should represent Canada and be an apolitical figurehead for the nation. The Prime Minister should be the real political leader. I utterly oppose the elected Presidency because it would mean the Presidency itself would no longer be immune to party politics and politicians. That is what Parliament is for. If it were elected the only people besides the mega rich and party representatives could afford a campaign, and any election would mean policies and a person automatically becoming politicians. Many deserving people would not be able to be President because they are not as well fund and not as 'polished'. And having an elected President itself would mean a cohabitation of politicians and conflict with the Prime Minister. Essentially we need to retain our philosophies of Government but just excise the monarchy from it.
Paul Keating spoke about this: "The Head of State should be an eminent Australian, a widely respected figure who can represent the nation as a whole. This in fact has been the character of the role of the Governor-General and it should be protected and retained in the role of a Head of State.
Popular election guarantees that the Head of State will not be above politics - indeed it guarantees that the Head of State will be a politician. As Sir Zelman Cowen pointed out in his speech last week, a "direct election of a President would ensure political outcomes"; and he went on to say that people like himself and another former Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, "would not have the resources or inclination to contest such an election". We cannot have a Head of State who is "above politics" if we subject candidates to popular elections - we will get instead politicians, political parties and political campaigns. And we will get a Head of State with an authority unheard of in our political system and discordant with some of the basic principles on which that system rests."
The Quebec issue may be resolved with this. By having the Head of State a Canadian rather than the monarch of a power their ancestors have feuded with a millennium they may feel better about being apart of a truly multicultural, democratic and primarily Canadian Canada.
The reason why the Republic Referendum failed was because the monarchist Liberal Prime Minister John Howard disrupted the debate. What should have been done was a series of plebiscites for people to decide upon which model to adopt. The referendum was only for the bipartisan appointment model and because of that and the way the question process was engineered deliberately to fail, the elected presidency Republicans voted with the monarchists.
Labor was reelected in 2007 and the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is a supporter of the Republic. Though it isn't a priority for the first term it does indicate later on in the Government's life the issue will reemerge and this time it will work. I hope with this debate restarts in Canada and the parties take a position.